Gillian Crampton Smith, the pioneer of the virtual world

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Who deals with Interaction Design. Is called Gillian Crampton Smith and, after having founded the training programs on interaction design at St Martin’s School of Art in London and at the Royal College of Art, in 2000, at the invitation of Telecom Italia and Olivetti, he created the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea and, with Philip Tabor he founded an Interaction Design course for the Master’s Degree in Visual and Multimedia Communications at the Iuav University of Venice. To explain what interaction is and what its function is, she herself: «When people interact with digital systems and devices, the experience is often maddening.

Interaction design, a discipline that combines art and technology, is dedicated to making this experience more efficient, less frustrating, more enjoyable, perhaps even fun! Sometimes it is called “experience design” or “service design” but the goal is the same: to make the virtual world we live more and more usable, useful and enjoyable ».

How did you come to deal with such a specific and technical issue?
“After studying History of Art and Philosophy at university, I followed my passion, typography, and worked as a designer of books and magazines. One day, back in 1980, I happened to read an edition of an American printing magazine that discussed the use of computers in graphic design. Inspired by this, I thought I could use a computer to help me with the layout of the magazine. In 1981, I bought an Apple II computer, learned programming by myself and designed my page layout program. At that time many programmers were self-taught and few programs existed, so it wasn’t as strange as it might seem today! I soon realized that not only could a computer help me with graphics, but that graphic design knowledge and skills could help make the software work better and make it more enjoyable to use. “

And so he started an interaction design course …
“Yes, I thought that if other designers understood how computers worked, they would also think of useful applications. In 1984 I then started a part-time course to train graphic designer professionals at St Martin’s School of Art in London. In 1990 I moved to the Royal College of Art, where I developed one of the world’s first research programs and labs on teaching interaction design. This was enriched by collaborating with California companies where I spent my summers, most notably at Apple’s Human Interface Group. As examples of good design applied to the interaction with new technologies I only knew two sources to show our students. Both were in Silicon Valley: IDEO, the Anglo-American product design studio, and Apple. Nothing else. But that meant we were free to invent design from scratch: sensible, crazy, useful, dreamy. There was no established path to hinder our imagination. And by understanding how the technology worked, we were able to exploit its full potential ».

He said that in 1990 there were only two sources of good interaction design to show to his folks students. Have things improved?
“Of course! But companies still have a long way to go to catch up with Apple’s forty years of experience building a design culture. However, several are trying, but the bar is much higher today. It is rare that one still encounters those infernal interfaces that were common in the past. But how many times do you come across an application or a device that, as Steve Jobs said, “Makes your heart sing?”. Not often. However, there are a couple of my favorites at the moment. One is Trainline, the train booking application. I find it really a pleasure to use. The engineering behind it, which brings together information from hundreds of railway companies, is
terribly complicated and took twenty years to build. But you don’t know while using it. It offers a single interface for purchasing tickets from different train companies so there is no need to focus on how each company’s website works. All the tickets are grouped together and the app sends reminders if desired and it’s easy and clear to read. The head designer was one of our first graduates from the Institute we founded in Ivrea. Then there is the Lavazza “Idola” coffee machine, where interaction design is designed for the physical product. I have had many machines from different companies. Only Lavazza makes my heart sing. It’s so simple that most people don’t even notice its interaction design, but I know it takes a lot of clever design and effort to make interaction simple, clear and intuitive. There is no screen, only six loot (on / off, temperature, four cup sizes) and three illuminated icons. These give you complete control and tell you everything you need to know when you are still half sleepy. ‘

What brought you to Italy?
«In 2000 I was invited by Telecom Italia and Olivetti to start the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, also known as Interaction-Ivrea, an international training and research institute that applied design to information and communications technology. I was inspired by the opportunity to continue this noble Olivetti project and thrilled at the thought of living and working in the incredibly beautiful buildings commissioned by Adriano. With the support of many designers in Italy and abroad, teachers and students have enjoyed five hilarious years, developing projects for the future of digital technologies for all, putting Ivrea back on the international map of innovation. Telecom Italia, however, following a change in management of the company, decided to stop supporting the Institute. The loss for Ivrea was a gain for Venice. My partner, Philip Tabor, who was Director of the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, and I were invited to start an interaction design course in the Faculty of Design at the Iuav University of Venice. From 2006 to 2014 we brought what we had learned in London, Silicon Valley and Ivrea to the numerous and talented design students of Venice ».

What kind of training does it take to work in interaction design: Architecture? Computer technology? Philosophy? Are there ad hoc schools?
«Interaction design is a vast field. It covers different areas such as visual and physical product design, design strategy, research according to user needs, hardware and software prototyping. However, it is a discipline related to the world of design, so it focuses on how a product fits into people’s culture and daily life. And design skills take time and practice to develop. There are still relatively few degree programs dedicated to interaction design. Many people first study another discipline related to design, such as graphics or product design, architecture or fashion, then do a master’s in interaction design. Some people even go through engineering. But we also need people with a background in the social, human or economic sciences. I really like this mix because it brings wealth to the team. Many of the Interaction-Ivrea students were designers, but others came from the most diverse backgrounds. This allowed them to understand and appreciate how other disciplines contribute to the creation of a successful product ».

What was the moment of transition? Which product / software marked the start of interaction design?
“Every now and then a product appears that predicts the future with surprising accuracy. For interaction design, and certainly for the modern world, the Xerox Star digital office system, developed in 1977 and launched in 1981, was an explosion of prophecies. It was a very expensive integrated set of on-screen applications, including text editing, graphics, spreadsheets, archiving and laser printing, all controlled using the “desk metaphor” and direct mouse manipulation of fields and folders through windows, icons, menus and cursors, instead of typing commands. The Xerox team, which included designers, engineers and sociologists, had invented a new way to interact with data on the
screen, based on the printed page. It was a useful tool for all professionals, not just secretaries and technicians ».

Could you give us a striking example of interaction design development? What are you doing today that was unthinkable a few years ago?
«The design approach was brought to market in a more affordable way by Steve Jobs and his team at Apple, with the aim of bringing a Macintosh to the desks of every office and every home. Microsoft later developed Windows on the same model. Almost half a century later it is still what we use today at work and at home. It is a tool not only for professionals, but also for “the rest of us”. When we started Interaction-Ivrea in 2000, cell phone technology was still in its infancy. But interaction designers and students were busy imagining and fantasizing about its potential future form and function. Then, in 2007, Apple announced the iPhone, another burst of innovation. I remember how we all exclaimed “They made it!” and how people soon started showing others the awesome things the interface allowed them to do, as if they were bragging about a new car. The iPhone was a huge step forward in technology and interface, service and product design. It has combined a new way to interact using our fingers, a new way to access and buy music, and an easier way to interface with friends and family through social media, all in the palm of your hand. “

To a young person who would like to be an interaction designer, what would you recommend as an ingredient “
essential “? Which must-see movie? Which book? Which software? Which character to study?
«Technology is constantly changing. Therefore understanding the principles is more useful than understanding the specific technologies. I always like it Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge (2006) which has a part of history and one of the different approaches of the designers. More than sources, however, I recommend using your own experience, for example by looking critically at the interfaces of the technology you use. Which one works most smoothly, which one do you enjoy and why? Are some of these a source of joy? Which one works worst and which one do you hate? How could they be improved? ».

If you were to close your eyes, how do you see the future of interaction design? What can be done? What is being worked on now?
“When I started my magazine layout program forty years ago, I was confident that the emerging technologies of the time, aided by the skills and values ​​of designers, would make everyday life easier and more satisfying. I was wrong. Despite the enormous advantages offered by information technology, we cannot deny the level of dysfunction we often face when we are confronted, for example, with online services or with the social and political diseases generated by new media. One problem, highlighted by Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research, is related to use: even if every application or product is well designed, each of us uses not only one application but many, probably hundreds. They all work differently and are constantly changing and updated. The result for people is cacophonous clumsiness, things that suddenly don’t work, a favorite application that gets interrupted by an update, and so on. Companies are thinking about how to make their products more desirable and increase market share, but they are not thinking about the bigger picture, about what makes life beautiful. I am hopeful that the designers of the new generations will take this challenge forward. Aesthetic skills and human values ​​characterize the best of the design world. I’m sure they can infuse the digital experience with some of the poetry, meaning and cultural richness with which literature, music, dance and cinema enrich our lives ”.

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